What is the Difference Between Negligence and Negligence Per Se?

By Peter DePaolis

When you get hurt because of the careless act of another person, you probably wonder if you can pursue money damages for your injuries and other losses. Most personal injury cases have negligence as their legal ground. There is simple negligence and negligence per se.

A DC personal injury attorney can handle your claim for compensation and answer your questions, like what is the difference between negligence and negligence per se?

Negligence Per Se

The term “per se” means by itself or of itself. Negligence per se means that the conduct of the defendant who caused an accident or injury was careless in and of itself, without needing to know additional information. The doctrine of negligence per se gets invoked when a tort involves a defendant breaking a law.

A tort is a civil wrong, as opposed to a criminal act. To add to the confusion, however, some actions can be both criminal and civil wrongs. For example, if someone walks up to you and, without provocation or justification, punches you in the face, you can call the police and ask that the person get arrested and charged with assault. You could also file a civil lawsuit seeking money damages for the personal injuries you suffered as a result of getting punched in the face.

Negligence per se means that the person who harmed you broke a statute or ordinance in the process of the incident. When someone breaks the law and someone else gets hurt as a result, the defendant automatically gets treated as negligent. If someone caused a collision because they were driving drunk, they were negligent per se. You do not have to prove a specific careless action in addition to breaking the laws that prohibit driving while intoxicated.

Negligence per se has a loophole, however. If the defendant had an excuse for breaking the law, they might not be negligent as a matter of law. In our assault scenario, if the defendant punched someone in the face because that person had pulled a gun on them, self-defense might be considered an excuse for breaking the law that makes assault a crime.


In cases involving ordinary negligence, not negligence per se, a successful plaintiff will have to prove all four of these factors to hold the defendant liable for the plaintiff’s injuries:

  • The defendant had a legal duty. By way of example, everyone who operates a motor vehicle on public streets has an obligation to drive cautiously and obey the traffic laws.
  • The defendant breached the legal duty. Failing to live up to a legal standard of care is negligence. If the defendant drove while legally intoxicated, the defendant was negligent.
  • The careless conduct must be the cause of the accident and injuries. If the defendant got into a crash because he was driving drunk, the facts satisfy the causation element.
  • The plaintiff must have quantifiable losses. Physical injuries satisfy this element of measurable harm.

When the plaintiff can prove all four of these elements, they can pursue money damages against the defendant.

You do not have to sort out all of these legal concepts. A DC personal injury attorney can help you go after compensation for your injuries from someone else’s negligence or negligence per se. Contact our office today for a free consultation.

About the Author
Peter DePaolis joined the firm in 1980 and has since represented a large number of individuals involved in automobile collisions, truck accidents, bus crashes, defective products, and medical malpractice cases. A significant portion of Mr. DePaolis’ practice is devoted to working on behalf of people suffering from asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other asbestos-related cancers. He has led his firm’s fight against the asbestos industry and has recovered over $30 million in damages for asbestos victims and their families.